Weird and Wonderful—Beech Blight Aphids

by Joe Venturo | Aug 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Beech blight aphids on beech tree
Beech blight aphids. Photo © Andrewasmith1/Dreamstime.com.

“What is that?”

My family spends a lot of time in nature, so we ask that question many times but…this was really bizarre. On a branch near the ground in front of us was a cluster of something alive. It looked as if a lot of small insects had made the branch their home, but we couldn’t see any body parts because each bug was covered in soft white hairs, making the swarm look like a snowy fungus growing on the tree branch. Even weirder, the insects were waving their bodies and wiggling the hairs. Yuck!

It was a beautiful day at Meddock Mountain State Park near Lake Gaston, North Carolina. My family and I had been enjoying hiking a trail along a creek in the woods. The sun shone through the green leafy trees, turning everything a cheery shade of yellow.

At a place where the trail turned away from the creek bank, we stepped into the woods to look at the water. It wasn’t a clear mountain creek—it was a deep, slow creek filled with dark stained water and shaded with fallen trees. When we turned our backs to the creek, the branch covered in white hairs caught our eyes, and we rushed to investigate.

Looking closely, we observed that the bugs were on the branch of a young beech tree. Ants rushed all over them. We wondered, What kind of animals are these? Is it a colony like bees or some kind of fungus or lichen? Are those insects? Why are they waving their bodies around like that? Taking some pictures and a video, we laid our questions aside until later.

After some reading on the way home, we figured out that they are called beech blight aphids. They are also called boogie-woogie aphids because of how they “dance” together when they feel threatened by a predator. They can also be called woolly aphids for their hairy coverings.

Weeks later, during a walk in the woods in Arkansas, we saw the same aphids again. They had congregated on a beech branch just like the ones in North Carolina! They seem to like beech trees more than any other type of tree.

Think you might want to see some of these disgusting creatures yourself? Keep an eye on the branches of young trees—these bugs are hard to miss. Although the beech blight aphid mainly lives on beech trees from Maine to Florida, other kinds of woolly aphids can be found on other types of trees as well.

Why are they covered in hair? The hairs are made of wax that protects the aphids from predators. If anything tries to eat the aphids, the predator will get a surprise! Instead of biting into a juicy aphid, the animal gets a woolly mess of sticky wax. To warn predators of the disgusting hairs, the aphids “dance” by waving their abdomens in the air. Ew! They certainly made me not want to touch them.

There is another reason to watch out for beech blight aphids. The nymphs (baby aphids) will attack and bite any predator that comes near the colony—kind of like soldier ants in an ant colony.

Like other aphids, beech blight aphids love to eat plant sap. When they eat sap from the tree, the extra sugar in the sap comes out of their bodies in the form of honeydew. Because of this sticky sweetness that the aphids leave behind, other insects like ants and wasps are often found near the aphids, feeding on the yummy honeydew.

Unlike the normal aphids you might have in your garden, beech blight aphids are not harmful to the trees on which they live. Often when the aphids leave a branch, a black fungus called sooty mold fungus will grow on the honeydew they leave behind. This fungus eventually turns brown. Then, while it grows, it becomes yellow. During the winter, the fungus turns black. Sooty mold fungus doesn’t hurt the tree, but it looks like another type of fungus that does hurt trees, making people think that beech blight aphids are pests that harm trees. But they actually don’t cause real trouble.

Before seeing these incredible animals, I would never have known that such bizarre, alien-like creatures exist. God loves to show us new things in His Creation—you just have to keep your eyes peeled. You never know when you will see something like the weird and wonderful beech blight aphid!

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